I remember reading an article years ago by one of the creators/producers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. They had wanted to expand on the renewed interest created by The Next Generation with a second spin-off, this one not in a starship exploring the galaxy, but rather “boldly staying put” in a space station, where people of different backgrounds (and species) struggled to get along with each other. It was the perfect setting for conflict: an isolated outpost perpetually on the brink of war populated with characters with private agendas and serious trust issues. The only prerequisite: it had to stay true to Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.
The problem? In Roddenberry’s future, humanity has finally overcome it’s darker side. Intellectual disagreements still exist, but otherwise everyone gets along. There is no hate, duplicity, greed, or power struggles.
In other words: no conflict.
That’s great for humanity, but full of suck for anyone trying to tell any kind of story. Stories need conflict. Conflict is the heart of drama (and comedy, for that matter). The producers of DS9 circumvented Roddenberry’s rule by simply populating the show with aliens. Humans may be evolved, but the Ferengi, Bajorans, and Cardassians are still flawed, dark, and hopelessly interesting.
So where do we get our conflict, and what do we do with it once we have it? It helps if you keep it as real as possible, even when dealing with fantasy and science fiction. Sure, we all agree Sharknados are, as the kids say, made out of awesome, but how many times is the average person going to encounter Great Whites falling out of the sky?* Well, that’s the easy part: pick up a paper, look out your window, hell, just talk to anyone about anything. In this flawed, un-evolved, decidedly non-Roddenberry world of ours, conflict is everywhere. Whatever you want, you got it, from minor blow-ups to calculating deceptions to life-or-death struggles. Take your pick. The trick is what to do with that conflict.
“Hey, I’m going to be late, there’s a Sharknado…Yeah, again…”
This May, I published my first novel. In it, the main character, Thea, is about to win a 2500 meter race at a track meet. Just before she can reach the finish line, the city is hit by a bombing raid. Bombs go off, and lives are lost. It was a scene I wrote literally eight years earlier, and one I hadn’t given much thought to afterward because it worked.
About a month earlier, however, something very similar happened in Boston, a race ending in violent tragedy. Suddenly the problems of a figment of my imagination didn’t seem worth much. I considered dropping the scene, though it was a pivotal part of the story. I considered postponing what I had put off far too long already. After talking it over with people close to me, I decided go ahead with it. I tweaked the scene and its aftermath to give it a little more weight, but otherwise I kept it as is. So far, I haven’t had any negative reactions to it.
That’s the double edge sword of conflict: we want it to be as real as possible, but for those who have gone through it, it might be too real. Our stories need conflict, or to put it another way: our job as writers is to kick the shit out of our characters (literally or figuratively). We put as much crap in our characters’ way as we can; the value of the story is seeing them climb their way out.
It would be nice if we lived in a future where everyone was nice to each other and bad things just didn’t happen. Until that happens, though, we need stories dripping with conflict to encourage us, to remind us that we can climb out of the crap that life gives us. And personally, I’ll take our messy world of conflict over a sterile utopia. It may be flawed, but that’s what makes it beautiful.
Although a holodeck would be awesome…
* Two or three at best